Cars backed up Thursday near Baton Rouge’s Tigerland bars, with college students flocking there not for “thirsty Thursdays” but for coronavirus tests amid a worrisome spike in infections among young adults in Louisiana that is reigniting concerns about the availability of tests. 

Cases of the virus are growing so quickly among young adults that some providers say they’re struggling to provide enough tests, while some people who suspect they have been infected say it’s been a challenge to find a test.

“We were doing pretty well for a while there in keeping up with the demand,” said Dr. Kevin DiBenedetto, the medical director for Premier Health, which runs dozens of urgent care clinics across the state, including Lake After Hours in Baton Rouge, LCMC Health Urgent Care in New Orleans and Lourdes Urgent Care in the Lafayette area.

“With this spike, it totally crushed our supply of tests,” DiBenedetto said.

Testing availability was an early concern when the coronavirus pandemic flared locally in March. For the first several weeks of the outbreak, potential coronavirus patients had to meet rigid standards to get tested because hospitals and clinics were so short on supplies. And once they did get tested, many reported long lags between the time they got tested and the time they received results.

But testing eventually ramped up across the state as more types of tests and labs to run them became available, and more than 660,000 tests had been performed across Louisiana as of Thursday, according to the Department of Health. As cases have trended upward in the past week, however, tests have become scarcer.

“It’s really hard to find testing, especially if you’re not showing any symptoms,” said Marilyn Kauffman, 21, who went to the drive-thru testing site Thursday at Fred’s in Tigerland.

Relief Telemed sponsored the pop-up test site with Neighborhood Health after more than 100 people recently tested positive for coronavirus after going to Tigerland bars. The students and bar staffers who went to get tested Thursday said their recent experiences partying there were far from socially distant. 

Raylee Browning, 18, said that when she went to “T Shirt Night” a week-and-a-half ago at Reggie’s, coronavirus wasn’t on her mind.

“We missed going out, and so when we were given the opportunity to do so, obviously we were going to take it,” Browning said.

But then, her best friend tested positive for coronavirus.

So on Thursday, Browning returned to Tigerland — not for a drink, but instead to receive a free test. Joey Foret, 21, a doorman at Fred’s and an LSU student, said his peers have been slow to recognize that amid a pandemic, cornerstones of college life — like partying or football games — may be off the table.

“We’re just not used to anything like this,” Foret said. “It’s been hard for us to wrap our heads around losing out on part of our college careers.”

Bargoers have gone to clinics and urgent cares for testing as well. DiBenedetto said many young people recently seeking tests at their clinics have mentioned recent visits to Tigerland or beach trips where they may have been exposed.

DiBenedetto said Premier Health’s urgent care sites are running 2,000 to 3,000 tests a week across the state, mostly from New Orleans and Baton Rouge, with a handful in the Lafayette and Lake Charles regions. He described a “huge rush” in young adults trying to get tested recently.

Over the past 10 days, 52% of the people that came to Premier's clinics for coronavirus tests were between the ages 20 and 39. An alarming 57% of them tested positive, he said.

Since April 5, DiBenedetto said, the overall rate of positive coronavirus tests performed by Premier has been 16%.

The recent influxes have prompted some clinics to revert to a policy of only testing people showing symptoms, rather than anyone who wants a test. DiBenedetto said he often explains to patients that he’s exposed to coronavirus in the clinic, but he won’t get tested for it unless he starts showing symptoms.

Some of the Lake After Hours clinics use Abbot ID Now Tests, which can return test results in five to 13 minutes. But DiBenedetto said clinics are now trying to preserve those rapid tests for older and sicker people, while they’re sending out some tests for younger patients with mild symptoms.

“We don’t feel the need to test them all because we don’t have enough tests,” he said.

Those putting on testing at Fred’s, however, were initially worried about the opposite problem: too few people signing up to get tested. To draw a larger crowd, staff at Fred’s posted on Instagram that they would pass out masks and stickers emblazoned with their signature Moose logo.

“We weren’t getting many sign-ups, and we know there are people out there with symptoms, so we wanted to encourage them and give them that extra little push to sign up,” said Jason Nay, Fred’s owner.

It worked: When Camryn Hanley, 19, was asked why she drove Thursday to Fred’s to get tested, her answer was straightforward: “I wanted a free mask.”

Quest Diagnostics, the national lab with testing sites in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Lafayette, has also reported that nationwide coronavirus surges are affecting the company's ability to test. In a statement released Thursday, Quest said that orders for its molecular diagnostic tests rose by 50% over the past three weeks.

“Despite the rapid expansion of our testing capacity, demand for testing has been growing faster,” the statement said.

In Louisiana, coronavirus cases are growing most quickly among young adults between ages 18 and 29. They account for 18%, or 9,570, of the known cases across the state since the pandemic began. Public health experts have warned that, though young adults often experience mild cases, they can easily transmit coronavirus to older people or those with preexisting conditions who could have severe cases.


Email Andrea Gallo at agallo@theadvocate.com